"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Start making sense

Most of you know I live in southern California and today it's Santa Ana Winds week. We get static-charged dry air along with 60-mile an hour winds (no, I'm NOT kidding) that rearrange everything everywhere. Me? I get a headache.

I read some doctor's claim that there are very few sinus headaches and people who say they get them are simply misdiagnosed. I'd like to exchange heads with him for one of these Santa Ana days and see if he still believes that.

But even though I'd like to take a rock and hit myself in the head (unconsciousness would be good right now), that doctor has given me something to post about.

Science - what does the data really prove?

In my very first psychology class as a college freshman, my professor said the most astounding thing: "There is no scientific proof that cigarettes cause cancer." What?!? He then explained. To establish scientific proof, scientists would have to set up three groups of people of the same age. One group of people would never EVER smoke ANYTHING. One group would begin smoking a pack a day at age eighteen. The third group would smoke something that looked like cigarettes but were placebos.

"Then when they were all sixty, we'd count the survivors and have our proof," he said. "There is, of course, a moral and ethical code about running these kinds of experiments, which is why we have laboratory mice and we make comparisons and extrapolations and it takes years to convince anyone to put a warning label on a pack of cigarettes, instead of a skull and crossbones."

(By the way, he smoked. He just admitted it was not his safest choice.)

From that moment, I looked at all pronouncements, scientific or statistic, with a degree of skepticism. How was the testing done? How were the results gathered? Who is behind the study or poll? What do they have to benefit from the results?

I can say this attitude has served me, in that I no longer panic when a headline screams, "Analysts Predict Worldwide Financial Collapse Within Fifty Years." Which analysts? Define "financial collapse." How did they arrive at their conclusion?

It also made me fall in love with the idea of the pure test, without any anticipation of results. Let the data prove what it proves, instead of looking for your own personal AHA.

What does any of this have to do with books and writing?

Because I read Publisher's Weekly and a bunch of other publisher/agent/author blogs, I'm always reading about how e-books are overtaking print books - NO WAIT - the print books are still in the lead - NO WAIT - independent authors are becoming more legitimate - NO WAIT - the Big Six Publishers are still calling the shots - NO WAIT...

Good grief, I'm exhausted just trying to figure out what kind of data they've used to arrive at their conclusions. At the end of the day, I can only do what seems right for me at the time, but I do consider the headlines because 'what's right for me' has to include what the market is doing.

So when Joe Konrath threw this little test up in a recent blog post, it got me very excited:

Visit publishers' websites. Pick ten books by new authors that are being released in November. Then set up a Google alert for each title, so you get all the marketing, news, and publicity associated with it. Also watch and track Amazon and BN.com rankings.

Follow these books for a month. See for yourself how well publishers do in breaking out these ten new books. Do any get on the bestseller lists? Visit some local bookstores. How many copies do they stock, if any? Contact the authors and ask how they're being treated.

Then you can find out for yourself what a Big 6 publisher does for a new author, and you'll have a much better reason for either taking, or rejecting, any deal they might offer you.

A test with real data I could collect and use! This is useful to me because even though I've self-pubbed my last three books, I may still want to submit the next one to a publisher. Maybe - if they can do things for me that I can't do for myself, such as reach a broader audience. But how do I know they are helping their authors sell as many books as possible?

Joe's test can be a more analytical, less anecdotal, way to determine that, which can only help me.

If you're an author, is there any criteria you use for determining what path to take your career? Do you find yourself relying on anecdotes for your choices?

If you're a publisher or agent, are you seeing any differences in authors these days? Are you also looking at the anecdotes and making adjustments in your own career/company to meet the market needs?

I hope this makes sense, in spite of my "non-sinus" sinus headache.


Anonymous said...

Nice post.The net has enabled people to have their say. But if you wish to be a serious writer, intent to make a mark, you still need to fall back on a big publishing house, willy nilly.

Gayle Carline said...

Thank you for your comment, versakay. I couldn't disagree more. There are a lot of very serious writers out there who are not published by a big house. Will they "make a mark"? I don't know - how do you define that?

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